Cheltenham Festival: Five key clashes for Thursday's racing

 Mar 17 2016

In the good old days, the ones with woollen racing colours and no social media, the Pertemps Network Final was a colossal guessing game based on the level at which the main contenders had been ‘trying’ in the months before the race.

In these more competitive times, that factor is no longer one to worry about, the form is more legible and any smokescreens less impenetrable. Even so, this is one race in which the bookmakers will be hopeful of retrieving past losses, with 24 contenders in a prolonged cavalry charge and anyone’s guess as to the outcome.

Depending on results elsewhere, the market may go 10-1 the field, and the best of British and Irish luck to anyone dogmatic about their particular fancy.

Vautour vs Expectation
Leaving aside the slightly sour taste in the mouth left by his switch from a Gold Cup that now seems a little less like a race for the ages,Vautour still has plenty to do in the Ryanair Chase despite his position as odds-on favourite.

If he is 90 per cent at home, as owner Rich Ricci intimates, then he’ll be beaten by a 100 per cent Road To Riches, or Valseur Lido, or Al Ferof. Nothing less than peak performance is good enough at Cheltenham, and Vautour is perforce vulnerable in a race that is much more competitive than had initially been feared.

Only victory can justify his towering reputation, and even that might be greeted with a little less than the customary wholehearted glee given the circumstances. All to lose, then, and not a huge amount to gain.

Thistlecrack vs The World

This time last year Thistlecrack had just finished fifth in the 2m Imperial Cup off a mark of 135. Five races later, he’s the overwhelming favourite for the 3m Ryanair World Hurdle, the stayers’ crown.

It has been a huge transformation ably overseen by the bucolic genius Colin Tizzard, but obviously this is the eight-year-old’s sternest test to date. Last year’s winner Cole Harden heads opposition that includes Paul Nicholls-trained stablemates Aux Ptits Soins and Saphir Du Rheu, but such has been the impression made by Thistlecrack in three runs this season that defeat would be a major surprise.

Yesterday, the Imperial Cup. Today, the World. Tomorrow?

Limini vs The need for a compelling race

The inaugural Trull House Stud Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle has drawn a sizeable field but the betting market indicates that there’s only one possible winner, the Willie Mullins-trained Limini

Limini might be brilliant, might see off the prolific Bloody Mary with all the elan of a seasoned well-seasoned tomato-and-vodka-based post-session aperitif consumer, but given the need for the new race to establish itself with punters and professionals alike, it would be preferable if she didn’t do so Douvan-style.

If she does, the race will be in danger of being seen as yet another Mullins benefit race, like the OLBG Mares’ Hurdle, and interest in the new arrival will wane. We need a competitive race, a rousing finish, a reason to make it memorable. Limini, okay, but it’s how it all happens that will matter.

Doctor Harper vs The Handicapper

Here’s a test for you. Promising novice hurdler ends the season on a mark of 138 after victory in a valuable handicap hurdle at Aintree over 3m. There’s class here, and the backing of a yard - the David Pipe academy - that knows the time of day better than the woman at the Speaking Clock.

After a season on the sidelines and three novice chases, all over two miles, the first two able performances in small fields despite being bogged down in the mud, the third a cantering success in a three-runner nothing race at Leicester, the big day dawns on a new scenario.

Back to three miles, back on the good ground he so clearly relishes, Doctor Harper goes for the Fulke Walwyn/Kim Muir. What mark has the handicapper allotted him? What would you have allotted him? He races off 141. It could be a bigger steal than Brink's-Mat.



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